Crispr could help India, but proceed cautiously
Crispr presents a remarkable opportunity for India to reset the global balance of power in food production and to become more self-sufficient
Drought may be India’s greatest national security risk today. As serious droughts become more frequent, helping farmers grow more food with less water may be important for the country’s health and prosperity — and technology may make the difference.
In 2024, researchers will begin testing a drought-tolerant genetically engineered rice, the first of an expected five-year wave of new crops, many developed by India’s researchers using a powerful gene-editing technology, Crispr. Short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, Crispr invokes an ancient bacterial defence mechanism to simplify editing DNA and RNA. Crispr lets researchers edit genes like writers cut and paste words on a computer.
Crispr supporters say that editing genes without inserting foreign DNA makes it less inherently risky than older forms of genetic engineering that involve moving DNA from one species to another. Thus, they say, Crispr works like traditional cross-hybridisation agriculture methods. The key difference is that Crispr methods can accomplish in a year or less what formerly required a decade or longer, and at a lower cost. That timetable could easily accelerate as tools for biological research combine with machine learning.
Crispr crops present India with both unprecedented opportunities and great risks. On the one hand, India can, for the first time, own its food fate, producing and patenting new indigenous varieties that may support the needs of farmers. Locally engineered Crispr-modified versions are already in the works for crops, tomatoes and mustard greens. With much Crispr knowledge being public, scientists can more easily research new cultivars than new varieties of genetically modified crops. And doing so could alleviate the seed and pesticide “lock-in” that has left farmers around the world vulnerable to the contractual and pricing whims of global agri-tech giants such as Monsanto (now Bayer) and Syngenta, returning to India some control over its food future.
On the other hand, as we suggested in The Driver in the Driverless Car, Crispr poses both known risks and unknown hazards. Researchers can — as they did in rapidly developing mRNA gene-transfer technology against the Covid-19 virus — outpace Mother Nature; but unintended consequences can be brutal and swift. For example, a Crispr crop might trigger new allergies, or a cultivar designed to combat an insect pest might cause ecosystem collapse, affecting or extinguishing species and preventing crop pollination. In theory, Crispr crops should be as nutritious and healthy as non-edited varieties, but we know that many hybridised crops today have lower nutrient concentrations, unique environmental susceptibilities and require greater pesticide application. Improperly tested Crispr cultivars may also incorporate vulnerabilities to diseases and pests that outstrip the problems they attempt to fix.
China is leading the world in experimentation with CRISPR and has lax controls, as we saw with the experiments it did with Covid-19 and the cover-ups that ensued. In the United States (US), Crispr-edited foods that do not contain alien genetic material are exempt from regulation, treated just like cultivars generated by traditional hybridisation, leaving consumers unable to know which foodstuffs have been modified. The European Union has taken a more cautious approach, instituting regulations that subject Crispr crops to greater scrutiny.
Though the technology promises quick rewards, India must proceed cautiously to mitigate its risks and avert its hazards. This means remaining vigilant while creating a smart regulatory structure to ensure that in a frantic dash to boost food production, we do not do irrevocable harm to ecosystems and agriculture.
India’s department of biotechnology, under the leadership of Rajesh Gokhale, has taken thoughtful steps in this direction has taken thoughtful steps in this direction. It has set up an infrastructure and review process for Crispr-edited crops and created mechanisms for sharing knowledge on creating new Crispr cultivars through open-source methods. It has also bifurcated its review and permit process for Crispr crops that only edit the original genome rather than incorporate foreign genetic material.
India needs to put even more resources and manpower into this effort. Whilst it has the intellectual capacity to employ Crispr productively and cautiously, other nations, such as the US and China, have many more potential cultivars in the pipeline. There is no easy way to stop them from entering the country or, from the information on how to create such cultivars, becoming widely shared.
Crispr presents a remarkable opportunity for India to reset the global balance of power in food production and to become more self-sufficient. The government has given the transformational potential of Crispr a high priority, in which private industry and venture capitalists could contribute by dedicating more of their own resources. With the right Crispr strategy and execution, India may see astounding benefits and cement a position as a global agricultural technology powerhouse within a decade. The possibilities need thoughtful attention as a matter of urgency.
Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever are co-authors of the book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How our Technology Choices will Create the Future The views expressed are personal